Many of our readers soon will celebrate the beginning of a new year. Some will indulge in revelry, reflection, and resolution. Others will enjoy their accomplishments, while thinking about the improvements they want to make in 2002.
The desire for self-improvement is integral to the human spirit. The hustle and bustle we see every day is strong evidence of our universal drive to improve our lives and ourselves. For some, the strategy for improvement will consist largely of wishing and hoping -- for a new job, a promotion, or a winning lottery ticket. But most of our readers understand that the real opportunity for improvement will not come from some lucky occurrence, but from their own efforts.
Even though many people will start the year determined to eat less, exercise more, find a better job (or just do better at their job), they probably will find themselves, as the year progresses, exercising less, eating more, and stuck in the same old job with the same old headaches.
Although the desire for self-improvement is universal, making real improvements seems out of reach. Why is it so difficult to improve? If you've met us, you know that we are not especially qualified to comment on diets or exercise, but do we have experience -- backed up data -- in improving job performance.
What's wrong with this picture?
Let's get personal for a minute. Jot down the New Year's resolutions that you have made in the past. Then put a check mark next to those that involve shoring up a weakness -- an area that is clearly among your lesser talents. If you're like the people Gallup has interviewed, most, if not all, of the items on your list have to do with some perceived weakness or flaw.
As a society, we tend to think that the best way to improve is by fixing our weaknesses, not by developing our strengths. This is true in every culture we have studied. Therefore, when we want to improve, the first thought that comes to mind is "What's wrong with me?" instead of "What are my talents and strengths, and how can I build on them?" Thus, our efforts to improve are often misdirected. We become frustrated and discouraged, and we think we don't have the necessary willpower to change. We recognize that we are fighting a losing battle.
This same mistaken notion about development is at the heart of many companies' human resource philosophies. Too often, the advice we get on improving our performances focuses on our areas of weakness. Solving problems, filling gaps, correcting weaknesses, and fixing flaws seems so tempting. And companies encourage and reinforce this counterproductive tendency. Annual reviews, many competency models, and, our favorite, "Individual Development Plans," all try to shore up our "areas of opportunity," while they sacrifice investment in our areas of greatest potential for success.
But the common thread we find among the world's best performers is just the opposite. The world's best don't focus on their weaknesses -- they focus on their strengths. Let's look at some real-life sales examples.
Brian: The Relationship Builder
Brian is an exceptional industrial supplies salesperson. His customers work for very large manufacturing plants, and they buy several million dollars of his products every year. Brian has the kind of personality that wins and keeps customers, and he develops deep relationships with his key accounts. He is dependable and reliable, and his customers have come to trust him.
Brian, however, is not an effective prospector for new business. He is uncomfortable meeting new people, and he feels awkward with people he does not know.
Is this a weakness? Should Brian focus his development efforts at improving at this aspect of his job?
Like most of us, Brian wants to get better. He wants to sell more, and he wants to earn more commissions. So, with his manager's encouragement, he took a company-sponsored course on remembering names, one on starting up conversations, and another on prospecting. He attended local industry events to meet new prospects, but he began to dread these prospecting opportunities. No matter what he did, Brian just never felt at ease going up and shaking people's hands and introducing himself.
When Brian began working with a new manager, things took a decided turn for the better. Brian's manager noticed his ability to build great relationships with his customers. He also observed that when Brian got to know someone, he was not shy about asking for business. He encouraged Brian to ask his best customers for new prospects. Several were more than willing to help him out. Some made phone calls on his behalf. One wrote a letter of introduction to a colleague. Another met him at the next industry event and introduced him to people. Within a very few months, Brian had developed two sizable new accounts. Brian became a better sales rep by developing and applying his relationship-building strengths.
Becky: The Great Presenter
Becky is a top-notch sales producer for a media company. Her customer presentations are right on target, and she's a talented communicator and persuader. One talent Becky lacks, though, is discipline. Her follow-up leaves a lot to be desired.
Is this a weakness? Absolutely! Becky is losing sales because of her lack of follow-up, and this is affecting her performance. Although Becky loves making presentations and getting customers to say "yes," she loses interest almost immediately after the deal is inked.
Realizing that this pattern cost her money, Becky developed several reminder systems to improve her follow-up. But she hated the days when she was tied to the office, sending out follow-up correspondence and making sure the details were just right. In spite of her efforts, things still seemed to slip through the cracks.
Eventually Becky solved this problem by teaming up with an inside customer service rep who was excellent at follow-up. Together, they were a terrific team. Of course, Becky's improved performance came not from off-loading what she disliked, but from spending more time in front of customers. As a result, her presentations became even crisper, and Becky is much more engaged in her job.
Accentuate the positive
As these two cases illustrate, sometimes a weakness can have a negative effect on our performance -- but that negative effect occurs only when we ignore or try to "fix" that weakness. When we try to learn a skill or develop competencies without the necessary talents, we quickly become frustrated. Instead, we should recognize that we simply don't have those talents as part of our make-up, manage them, and focus on developing and apply our strengths.
In Brian's case, prospecting was an important part of his job, and he found a way to use his relationship-building skills to compensate for his dislike of meeting new people. In Becky's case, she was able to find a partner to help her follow through on her commitments. In both cases, they found a way to manage their weakness.
If you're thinking about making resolutions this year, think about your talents and strengths. Think about how you can do more of what you do best. If you are a sales manager, think about the your salespeople's talents. Gallup's research conclusively shows that when people do what they do best every single day, their productivity, satisfaction, and enthusiasm increase dramatically.
All of us who are part of the Gallup Sales Effectiveness team wish you a happy and prosperous new year.